The most recent Winter Olympics were held in 2014 in Russia, of all places, where a so-called gay propaganda law still threatens LGBT people. The U.S. Supreme Court had not yet ruled on marriage equality.
What a difference a few years made.
Now, in Rio, a record number of out athletes are competing. One has already won a medal, and a married couple made sports history this weekend. But with added visibility, these 44 Olympians are doing the important work of broadening cultural acceptance. That includes breaking through a long-held media tradition — the inspiring Olympic backstory.
For decades, watching the Olympics could seem like entering a world devoid of LGBT people. But now when journalists track down great American tales of perseverance that exemplify our spirit, they sometimes include a same-sex partner.
“As every athlete here knows, it takes an almost superhuman effort to get to the Olympics,” said NBC Nightly News anchor Lester Holt when introducing the story of Jillion Potter. “That’s under normal circumstances. When a life-threatening illness gets in the way, the challenge might seem impossible. But not for one determined American woman who plays rugby.”
Potter, a cancer survivor, plays on the first-ever women’s rugby team, and her wife makes an appearance in the NBC profile, like any spouse would. Her sexual orientation is never pivotal to the narrative. The piece ran ahead of a quarterfinals loss to New Zealand, and the USA Rugby team — which also includes out player Kelly Griffin — is aiming for a fifth-place finish.
“It's fantastic,” tennis great Martina Navratilova told The Advocate. “As I said to my mom decades ago, we must speak out now so one day being gay will not be an issue at all. It's heading that way.” Navratilova competed in women’s doubles as an out Olympian back in 2004, blazing the trail.
Women’s basketball comes with the most out players for the U.S., with Brittney Griner at center, Seimone Augustus as forward, and small forwards Angel McCoughtry and Elena Delle Donne. They're already two wins into the Olympics and moving ahead, favorites to medal.
Megan Rapinoe, who is injured, is hoping to medal again with the U.S. women’s soccer team, while Ashley Nee is a kayaker. There are no out men playing for the U.S. in any sport. And women are surely more widely represented worldwide. In fact, OutSports reports that two British field hockey players — Kate and Helen Richardson-Walsh — made history this weekend during the Rio games as the first married couple to ever play on the same team. With sports separated by gender, that wouldn't have been possible before marriage equality. The two played together during the last Summer Olympics in London, but that was in 2012 and same-sex marriage wasn’t legal in the United Kingdom until 2014.
Same-sex partners are also visible on the sidelines. Famed out British diver Tom Daley won a bronze medal Monday alongside Dan Goodfellow in the synchronized 10-meter platform. Daley’s boyfriend, American screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, was there and tweeted his congratulations. “So proud of you my love!!!” he wrote, with nearly 1,000 retweets and 3,000 people favorting the tweet.
But while the internet was cheering alongside Black, some expressed disappointment he wasn't acknowledged by announcers on screen as Daley's supportive Oscar-winning fiancé. Instead, they chatted at times about Daley's father passing, his celebrity in the U.K., and his past wins, but never noted Daley's sexual orientation during the nearly hourlong broadcast. So on equality, as Navratilova said, it's heading that way. We're not there yet.
Faith Cheltenham, president of BiNet USA, told The Advocate that NBC Sports ought to have noted the meaning of Daley for LGBT viewers, and instead they "never mentioned anything about why he's been important as a vocal out athlete who now has a bronze."